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Waterville Craftsman Shapes Wood into Coffins - for the Living

Each semester, documentary students from all over come to Portland to spend an intensive few months studying photography, writing or radio at the SALT Institute for Documentary Studies - and telling stories about Maine. This fall, Julie Lowrie Henderson decided to tell the story of Chuck Lakin, a 67-year-old retired reference librarian and woodworker from Waterville, who's found a unique way of helping people talk about, and deal with, death.

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Waterville Craftsman Shapes Wood into Coffins - fo Listen

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One of Waterville woodworker Chuck Lakin's coffins in the works.

Gini Landry: "Come on in."

Chuck Lakin: "Nice to see you again, you're doing well?"

Gini Landry: "I'm doing very well. I'm not ready for my quilt rack yet, it's still doing my quilt job..."

This is Gini Landry and Chuck Lakin. They met four years ago after she read an article in the Waterville Sentinel.

Gini Landry: "Oh, I remember Chuck, I said, 'You're the answer to my prayer, I've always wanted to go out in a pine box, Chuck, can you make me one?' And when I told you I was 4'11" tall you said, 'It won't be a big job.'" (They both laugh.)

Gini Landry: "I said, 'I want a coffin and can you make it into a quilt rack?' And he said, 'I can make it into anything you want.' And so he did."

This quilt rack-slash-coffin sits right at the top of the stairs in the hallway.

Gini Landry: "Whenever I have guests here and the conversation lags a bit or things get a little boring I say, 'Would you like to see my coffin?'"

So, Gini Landry isn't dying. She's not sick. In fact, she's a rather spry 81-year-old woman. But, yes, she owns a coffin. And Chuck Lakin made it for her, because - well, that's what he does. He builds coffins for living people. Which might not be as weird as it seems.

To understand, we need to go back to 1979 and the death of Chuck's father, who had lung cancer that spread to his brain. He was at home for the last 6 weeks of his life

Chuck Lakin: "And I had been there for the last month of that."

And he died in his own bed with his wife and four kids touching him.

Chuck Lakin: "It had been a really personal experience up until that point and I wanted to be a part of whatever came next. But I didn't know what to do, so we called the funeral director who did what he thought we wanted him to do, which was he arrived promptly, zipped him in a body bag, hauled him away and four days later we got a box of ashes in the mail."

Chuck felt that standard funeral approach was impersonal, and it continued to bother him. And it took about 20 years, but he eventually came across a home funeral guide and he learned that you can keep the body at home and bathe, dress and care for it yourself. You can do the service at home if you want, too. It's what he wishes he could have done for his father. So he begins spreading the word about home funerals.

Chuck Lakin: "Well, I'm a woodworker and if you talk about home funerals, what else would you make? You'd certainly try."

And so began Chuck's unusual hobby. On a recent Monday morning, Chuck is in his basement woodshop, hammering away at a simple pine coffin. Around the workshop are coffins of all shapes and styles.

Chuck Lakin: "This is the bookcase coffin, this is the entertainment center coffin, that's a version of the quick coffin, so this is that flared coffin."

These are not coffins like we're used to seeing in funeral homes - these are simple pine boxes with clever designs that Chuck dreams up.

Chuck Lakin: "It's one of those things that I often wake up in the middle of the night and don't go back to sleep readily, and I do some of my best design work then. The three-way coffin, the display cabinet/entertainment center/storage chest coffin, was a design that came to me in the middle of the night once."

Not sure you want your TV in your coffin? That's okay. Chuck will make your coffin however you want it. In fact, each coffin is custom made.

Chuck Lakin: "Almost never does somebody just come in and say, 'Well, I like that one, make me one of those,' hand me a check and ask me when I'll deliver it. That doesn't happen. There's always a conversation involved."

Picking out a coffin is about as personal as you can get. It forces Chuck's customers to ask themselves what they really want to happen when they die. Gini already knew she didn't want to be embalmed.

Gini Landry: "I hate that it's so artificial, it's a way of not accepting that someone has died, we're gonna get them all gussied up, they're gonna look pretty and people are gonna say, 'Oh, she looks good.' She's dead! And that's okay, there's nothing wrong with being dead. It happens to everybody."

So Chuck helped design a coffin that respected Gini's desire for something more simple.

Gini Landry: "When I'm dead I'm gonna be in that pine box and they're gonna carry me over the hill and I'm gonna warm up the world a little bit."

This puts Chuck in the unique position of helping people have the experience with death that they want. Chuck's lectures about home funerals include a discussion about all of our options when we die.

Chuck Lakin: "You know, what I'm really trying to do, what it's evolved into, is I'm trying to get people to think and talk about their own death."

And this is where buying a coffin before you need it starts to make a lot more sense. We're all going to die. Chuck just wants us to admit it. And prepare for it.

Chuck Lakin: "Having made the preparations in advance makes things a lot simpler on the survivors. Just they don't have to go through the process of trying to figure out how many bank accounts you have or where your investments are or where's the deed, where's the title of the car or what do you want to have happen to your body after your death?"

Death is natural part of life, there's no avoiding it. But most people aren't as comfortable with their own mortality as Gini, and Chuck is doing his best to try to reach them.

Chuck Lakin: "Now, I'm merely trying to change the way the American public thinks about death - ignoring the fact that you're going to die, or fighting the fact that you're going to die, takes away from some of the possibilities of the experience. I think that the opposite of death isn't life, I think that the opposite of death is birth. I think that it's a transition into life and it's a transition out of life."

It's a transition that none of us looks forward to, but Chuck feels that if we take steps to prepare for death, we'll be less frightened of it when it comes.

Photo by Julie Lowrie Henderson.

The SALT Institute for Documentary Studies is holding an opening reception tomorrow, Dec. 13.  Details below:

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